Garden Birds

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 20, 2020 by telescoper
A blue tit at the peanuts

The previous owner of my house left a bird feeder in the shed so I decided to see what sort of birds would come if I put it up. The feeder has quite a wide mesh so I bought a sack of peanuts, filled it up, and suspended from one of the trees.

Almost immediately a group of starlings arrived and took turns at pecking at the contents. I know that some starlings are resident all year round, but there is an annual influx of migratory birds around autumn. It seems a bit early for the continental starlings which usually start to turn up in October. Anyway, they seem ravenously hungry but are rather messy eaters and keep dropping bits on the ground.

The principal beneficiary of the starlings’ messiness is a robin, whose tactic is to wait underneath for peanuts from above. It does not seem keen to attempt the acrobatics needed to feed directly from the feeder. Sparrows do this too, but not when the robin is around as the robin chases them off; robins are feisty little critters. This one isn’t afraid to have a go at the much larger starlings if they descend to ground level.

There are at least two blue tits that visit the garden but they rarely get the chance to get at the peanuts before being scared off by yet more starlings. The picture above is an exception.

To help the smaller birds I bought a second feeder with a finer mesh that the starlings can’t get into this and filled it with mixed seed. The blue tits have this to themselves but obviously like the nuts too and will go to that feeder if there are no starlings.

Yesterday one of the many resident jackdaws tried the peanut feeder but failed in its mission as it was too big to hang on.

So far apart from those mentioned above I’ve also seen a chaffinch and a great tit but mainly it’s been blue tits and starlings. Of course I’m not in during the day so there might well be other species of garden visitor that I don’t see.

I’m thinking of getting a third feeder (for fat balls, etc) but I’m told that around here that will just mean a garden permanently full of rooks jackdaws and magpies. Any suggestions for alternative feeding mechanisms that might attract a wider variety of birdlife are welcome!

Culture Night 2020

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music on September 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday evening was Culture Night 2020. I’m afraid the only event I was able to enjoy was the concert from the National Concert Hall by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gavin Maloney that consisted of:

Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto K.622 in A Major
John Finucane (clarinet)

Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 Op.90 in A Major (Italian)

Here is the concert as it appeared on the live stream.

The bright and breezy Italian Symphony by Mendelssohn was a welcome tonic at the end of yet another exhausting and stressful week.

On Culture Night last year I was actually in the National Concert Hall after spending a very enjoyable afternoon wandering around Dublin. Yesterday however it was announced that after a surge in Covid-19 cases in the capital additional restrictions would be imposed there. What a difference a year makes! On Culture Night 2019 nobody had even heard of Covid-19.

Because many of our students come from the West Dublin area it has been decided to ‘escalate protective measures‘ at Maynooth University. This means, among other things, that the maximum class size for in-person lectures is 30. That means we have to revise our teaching plans yet again with just a week to go before the students arrive on campus, though I think for Theoretical Physics it really only changes the second-year modules. That is unless there are further restrictions, which is not unlikely.

Another exhausting and stressful week beckons!

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Moving Over

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on September 18, 2020 by telescoper

Although I moved into my new house in Maynooth nearly three weeks ago, it was only today that my former landlord came to collect the keys to the flat I was formerly living in. I am quite pleased that I no longer have the keys because having them made me feel some sort of responsibility for the place even though there is nothing of mine there. Handing over the keys is a form of closure, I suppose.

The fact that the landlord wasn’t in a hurry to complete the formalities gave me a bit of extra time to finish a couple of tasks that took longer than I’d expected.

The first was to close the electricity account for which task I needed a final reading from the electricity meter. One of the awkward things about the flat I was in was that the electricity meter isn’t in the flat but in a cupboard in the hallway along with the meters for the other three flats in the building. The cupboard belongs to the management company and they have the only keys. Whenever I needed a meter reading I therefore have to ask them to take one. I contacted them before moving out to do this, but they only sent me the reading this Monday so I only just got the account closed this week. I was a bit irritated that it took so long, but pleased in the end because the reading was substantially less than the `estimated’ reading used by the electricity company in the absence of any readings during the lockdown so I got a nice farewell refund.

Incidentally, the level of sloth of managing agents is by no means unusual in my experience. They always seem to manage to do as little as possible.

The other thing was the washing machine. The appliance supplied with the flat broke down at the start of the lockdown so I bought a new one just in time before all the stores closed and, with the landlord’s permission, I scrapped the old one. I always had the intention of taking the new one with me when I moved out. When the time came however it proved more difficult than I’d imagined.

In order to detach a washing machine from the water supply it is necessary to close a valve, otherwise there will be a flood. Unfortunately the valve was jammed and I could budge it. No worry, I thought, I’ll just turn off the cold water at the stopcock. Mostly this is found under the kitchen sink but when I looked for it I realized that whoever had installed the unit under the sink had boarded up the stopcock so it was inaccessible. I therefore had to take the back panel off the unit to get at the stopcock. When I had done that I found the stopcock wouldn’t budge. Not at first anyway. Eventually, with the application of a bit of elbow grease, I got it to turn. And so it came to pass that the washing machine was detached.

I then had to cart it to my new house. The only hard bit of that was lifting the thing onto the trolley I’d borrowed for the purpose. Washing machines are rather heavy, you see. After some struggling I managed to get going and trundled quite happily down the road to my new house and got it attached to the water there without any problem.

After having a cup of tea and a bit of a rest I thought it would be a good idea to go back to the flat and leave a note to explain that the cold water was turned off at the main and that it would be inadvisable to turn it on without sealing up the inlet pipe with a blank (or indeed another washing machine).

These tasks completed, and the keys returned, one part of the process of moving is now over. Phase Two will involve transporting the rest of my belongings from Cardiff, but that won’t be possible for a while as it looks like both Ireland and the UK are heading for more restrictions on movement due to Covid-19.

The one thing that has really struck me since moving is how much quieter my new neighbourhood is. The flat was on a main road so – apart from the full lockdown period in the spring – there was constant traffic noise. Although I got used to it, it did make it very hard to record video lectures etc. The new place is sufficiently far from large roads that the background noise is negligible, and it’s a detached house so there’s no noise from the neighbours either!

The Strand at Lough Beg – Seamus Heaney

Posted in History, Poetry, Television with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2020 by telescoper

Last night I watched a harrowing but compelling film called Unquiet Graves which is about the activities of the Glenanne gang, a loyalist paramilitary group which carried out in excess of 120 murders during the 1970s including the horrific bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974. Many members of this gang were serving members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment which ensured that these heinous crimes were never properly investigated and in many cases the families of the victims are still waiting for justice.

The film makes very difficult viewing but is a timely reminder of a terrible period in Irish history and gives reason to reflect on the importance of the Belfast Agreement that brought peace to a part of the world that so recently stood on the brink of civil war.

One of the victims of the Glenanne gang was a young man called Colum McCartney, a cousin of the poet Seamus Heaney. Colum’s car was stopped not far from Armagh by men in army uniforms. He was made to get out and kneel, and then he was shot in the back of the head. His companion, who tried to run away, was shot in the back as he fled. Seamus Heaney composed this poignant elegy to his murdered relative.

In Memory of Colum McCartney

All round this little island, on the strand
Far down below there, where the breakers strive
Grow the tall rushes from the oozy sand.
–Dante, Purgatorio, I, 100-3

Leaving the white glow of filling stations
And a few lonely streetlamps among fields
You climbed the hills toward Newtownhamilton
Past the Fews Forest, out beneath the stars–
Along the road, a high, bare pilgrim’s track
Where Sweeney fled before the bloodied heads,
Goat-beards and dogs’ eyes in a demon pack
Blazing out of the ground, snapping and squealing.
What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block?
The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling
Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?
Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights
That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down
Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew:
The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,
Church Island’s spire, its soft treeline of yew.

There you used hear guns fired behind the house
Long before rising time, when duck shooters
Haunted the marigolds and bulrushes,
But still were scared to find spent cartridges,
Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected,
On your way across the strand to fetch the cows.
For you and yours and yours and mine fought the shy,
Spoke an old language of conspirators
And could not crack the whip or seize the day:
Big-voiced scullions, herders, feelers round
Haycocks and hindquarters, talkers in byres,
Slow arbitrators of the burial ground.

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

Astronomy Look-alikes No. 100

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes, Cardiff, Television with tags , , , on September 16, 2020 by telescoper

I haven’t done any of these for a while, but last night I was surprised to see Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University on television for the second time in a week so I couldn’t resist. I wonder how while discovering phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus she finds the time to play Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope in the popular detective series Vera?

Twelve Years in The Dark!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 15, 2020 by telescoper

When I logged onto WordPress today I received a message that it was the 12th anniversary of my registration with them as a blogger, which is when I took my first step into the blogosphere; that was way back on 15th September 2008.

I actually wrote my first post on the day I registered but unfortunately I didn’t really know what I was doing on my first day at blogging – no change there, then – and I didn’t actually manage to figure out how to publish this earth-shattering piece. It was only after I’d written my second post that I realized that the first one wasn’t actually visible to the general public because I hadn’t pressed the right buttons, so the two appear in the wrong order in my archive.

If you’re interested in statistics then, as of 13.00 Irish Summer Time Today today, I have published 5197 blog posts posts and have received 4,369,422 hits altogether; I get an average of just under 1000 per day. This varies in a very erratic fashion from day to day, but there has been a bit of a downward trend over the last few years, presumably because I’m getting older and more boring. The largest number of hits I have received in a single day is 8,864 (at the peak of the BICEP2 controversy).

There have been 35,313 comments published on here and 2,672,823 rejected by the spam filters. The vast majority of the rejected comments were from bots, but a small number have been removed for various violations, usually for abuse of some kind. And, yes, I do get to decide what is published: it is my blog!

While I am on the subject of comments, I’ll just repeat here the policy stated on the home page of this blog:

Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted. I do not necessarily endorse, support, sanction, encourage, verify or agree with the opinions or statements of any information or other content in the comments on this site and do not in any way guarantee their accuracy or reliability.

It does mean a lot to me to know that there are people who find my ramblings on this `shitty wordpress blog’ interesting enough to look at, or even read, and sometimes even to come back for more, so I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes to all those who follow this blog and especially those who take the trouble to comment on it in such interesting and unpredictable ways!

The last twelve years have been eventful, to say the least, both personally and professionally. I started blogging not long after I’d moved into my house in Pontcanna, Cardiff. Since then I moved to Sussex, then back to Cardiff, and now to Ireland. More importantly we’ve seen the discovery of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves, both of which resulted in Nobel Prizes, as did the studies of high-redshift supernovae. The Planck mission mission was launched, did its stuff, and came to a conclusion in this time too. Science has moved forward, even if there are many things in this world that seem to be going backwards.

New Publication at the Open Journal of Astrophysics!

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on September 15, 2020 by telescoper

A day may come when I don’t write a blog post every time we publish a new paper in the Open Journal of Astrophysics, but it is not this day…

Today’s new publication is by Liliya Williams (of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) and David Zegeye of the University of Chicago and is entitled Two-component mass models of the lensing galaxy in the quadruply imaged supernova iPTF16geu.

Here is a screen grab of the overlay:

You can click on the image to make it larger should you wish to do so.

Incidentally, you may notice that Scholastica have added MathJax to the platform to render mathematical expressions in the abstract.

You can find the arXiv version of the paper here.

Today’s Big Astronomy Announcement

Posted in Astrohype, Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 14, 2020 by telescoper

Rumours have been circulating for a few days about a big astronomical discovery. Here is a video of the announcement:

Sorry, that’s the wrong video.

The actual announcement will take place live at 4pm BST here:

Until a few minutes ago I didn’t have a clue what this was about, but now I do…

Phone ship surprisingly detected in atmosphere of Venus (9)

If you would like to read more about this discovery then you can read the paper in Nature here. Several of the authors are former Cardiff colleagues, including first author Jane Greaves, as well as Annabel Cartwright and my former office mate Emily Drabek-Maunder. Congratulations to them on an exciting result!

P.S. Emily reminded me last night that I was present at the discussion with Jane that started this project, over four years ago. I remember them talking about phosphine but had no idea that it would lead to this!

Points and Offers

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on September 13, 2020 by telescoper

I spent a bit of time yesterday poring over the CAO offers supplement in the Weekend edition of the Irish Times. The extensive listings, of which the above picture shows just part, show the minimum number of points needed for first round offers at Ireland’s third-level institutions. Students who have met the requirements for a course they applied to have until 16th September to decide whether to accept. There is then another round of offers starting a week later on 23rd September and closing on 25th September.

Much has been made of the increase in points needed for many courses since last year. That is indeed borne out by the table, though many of the increases are relatively small.

The denominated programme in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics at Maynooth University, for example, is up 22 points on 510 from last year’s 488 but that’s not an exceptionally high figure in historical terms.

On the other hand, offers for both Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Trinity College are both down on last year (to 531 from 566 and from 565 to 543, respectively).

There are other courses here and there that have gone down too. I suspect part of the reason for this is that some courses have been allocated extra places and have had to drop their points to recruit the additional students.

Finally I noticed that the first-round points for Equine Business at Maynooth University are unchanged on last year at 357. That may not be the final offer, though. There is probably quite a lot of horse-trading in store…

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.